Jonathan has worked for many years at Ruskin Mill College helping people with disabilities to learn practical sustainability skills. Amongst the things he does is teach people to make soap from the very basic constituents, beginning with ash and beef fat.
“But Alchemy,” Jonathan tell me, “is about the transformation of the human being. It is a different way of thinking and approaching problems. An alchemist does not just reduce things to the constituent parts, but sees a distinction in qualitative aspects and spiritual aspects. For example, the difference between dew and groundwater.”
Two years ago I decided to explore other ways of thinking because the scientific tools I had been taught up to that point were insufficient for the global problem. I listened gratefully and had to tell my scientific indoctrination to be quiet sometimes, so that I could hear.
“Salt, sulfur and mercury are used in alchemy as principles in nature.” continues Jonathan as I nod, frowning with concentration. “Sulfur for example is the principle of a connection to warmth and to dissipate. Burning the plants you get the salts, steaming you get the oils. It’s like the body, soul and spirit aspects. Alchemy relates natural transformations and processes back to human beings and what does it mean in relation to being human. It’s avoiding reductionist thinking. How things behave, rather than what they are.”
“Ahhh, ok.” The last sentence clicks with what I’d been thinking that morning and I keep nodding. I can understand parts of what he’s saying, but it would be a lot to expect me to grasp much with only an hour’s tea-introduction. I can see how the different perspective of an alchemist gives some very interesting insights.
With pleasure, I think how far I’ve come in the last two years. A few years ago, for starters I wouldn’t have deliberately spoken to Jonathan. If we had spoken, I would probably have thought he was strange, despite his intellect and calm manner. It’s not uncommon for intelligent people in science to have a blind spot covering everything that’s not straight ahead of them. It’s very easy to believe in yourself when the industrial culture keeps telling you that you are right and other’s wrong. But what about when the culture keeps telling you that you are wrong? It takes considerably more strength to believe in yourself and your path then.
I love science. I love it. Yet for me science is a quest for understanding. The best science to me is 95% observation, 2% theories and testing and 3% luck. I am saddened that we seem to lack the patience now to observe and to understand. I compare it to the young Charles Darwin on his ship, collecting dust at sea and asking questions. Questions that led to a global concept of the movement of nutrients in the atmosphere. There seems a premature arrogance now, a refusal to see what is there, but instead to see only the vision of what we want to do. I’m not at all claiming to have overcome this attitude within myself.
“People have assumed that consciousness in the past is the same as it is today, but it’s not.” says Jonathan. “Our experiences are very different and that effects our thought processes, so they can be very different.” Some fast nodding from me, this ties in with my limited understanding of neuroscience from books I’ve read and makes a lot of sense to me.
“Like with languages.” I say. “You think differently in different languages, because it frames how you think.”
“Yes, and you can see the evidence of the changes in consciousness partly through the historic change in language.” says Jonathan. “Children’s thought processes also change as they develop. It can be very misleading to try to judge the actions of the past with today’s thought processes. We need to shift our consciousness to deal with the future, and I believe that to be happening.”